In a lot of movies, both now and in the past, the logic of the story requires that the protagonist kill someone. But we, as audience members, are squeamish about murder. We’ll lose sympathy for a character if we perceive them as a murderer. I call this the double 0 problem, because the quintessential example of it are the James Bond films. Bond is 007; the double 0 denotes a license to kill. For reasons of state, he is authorized to kill people. But if you watch a Bond film (and I’ve seen them all), he hardly ever just flat kills anyone. We wouldn’t care for that–he’s a hero, after all. So they work out some ingenious plot twist in which he kills the villain, but it’s self-defense.
The double 0 problem is particularly acute in The Hunger Games movie. The logic of the Hunger Games requires that the winner, a child, kill other children. We love Katniss, we root for her to win, but in the back of our minds, we are aware that she’s going to have to kill to win. She may have to actually hunt down other children and murder them. So they work it out so she doesn’t. She kills three people in the film, two in self-defense, and one a mercy killing, shooting a child being devoured by nasty wolf-dog creatures. Katniss wins, but she wins without murdering. This has drawn considerable criticism–it might be a better movie if it actually confronted the Hunger Games dilemma. But I rather think it wouldn’t be as popular a movie, and it does make its point about violence and reality TV and so on.
Think of the Three Musketeers, both the novel and the one good film based on it, the 1973 Richard Lester one, with Oliver Reed and Richard Chamberlain and Michael York. We know Milady is evil, and we know she has to die, and at the hand of Athos. But we like Athos, we don’t want him to murder. So the Musketeers dodge the problem, sort of, by holding a trial. It feels better, feels like justice instead of revenge. Or in The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo: Lisbeth rescues Blomkvist (spoiler alert!) as the villain runs off. She then turns to Blomkvist and asks ‘permission to kill him?’ He nods, and she races off, gets on her motorcycle, and chases the villain, in his car, across a bridge. He crashes, and is lying there in the wreckage. She walks up to him. She’s got a gun. She’s going to kill him, we think. Then the car wreckage catches fire.
I thought about this the other day when my frenemies at Netflix delivered two movies from waaaaay down my queue list, because they’re conspiring to NEVER send me the second season of Downton Abbey. Not that I’m bitter. Anyway, one of the movies turned out to be way worse than I thought it would be, and the other one way better; both illustrate the double 0 problem.
The bad one was Horrible Bosses. A sort of guy oriented remake of Nine to Five, only without the feminism, also without Dolly Parton, which means without everything that made the original different and cool and awesome. Anyway, three guys–Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day–have three completely horrible bosses–Kevin Spacey, Colin Ferrell, and Jennifer Anniston. (The three actual movie stars are the villains, oddly enough). So they decide to murder them, murder each other’s bosses, since they’d be suspects in their own boss’s death. And there it is, the double 0–we’re rooting for murderers. Turns out, what with the convoluted plot, witless antics and occasionally funny physical comedy–mostly by a cat, the most engaging character in the movie–they don’t actually end up killing anyone. Woulda liked it better if they had.
See, this is the point; the double 0 dynamic is a cheat, a cop-out, an easy way out. It allows writers to avoid the inexorable logic of their own narrative. It’s morally dishonest.
But then I saw the other one. In The Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie’s directoral debut. A searing, powerful, film about the Serbian invasion of Bosnia, the genocide, the blockade of Sarajevo, and the tepid and cowardly response of the rest of the world to horror. The film focuses on a couple, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian painter, and Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian soldier, who fall in love in the middle of the war’s epicenter. A very Hollywood movie, one might think–tragic, doomed love in the middle of a war. It’s Casablanca, it’s Dr. Zhivago. it’s a ‘love is so powerful a force, it can survive anywhere, even a terrible war; kind of movie. No. This war is so brutal, so unreasoningly violent (all of which Jolie depicts unblinkingly), it warps their love, turns it twisted and sick. Danijel can protect her–he’s an officer, and is allowed one Bosnian whore. But his commanders become suspicious. It ends how it must end, violently and badly.
I wept at the end; it’s a tremendous film. A bit flawed, particularly in the depiction of the two cultures–the Serbs are just pigs, and the Bosnians are plucky and brave. But I loved a movie honest enough to show us murder, actual murder, the real, sick fascination of a culture based on murder. It transcends the double 0 problem by just ignoring it. And thus achieves greatness.